Realistic Expectations in Personal Self-Defense Pistols

I’ve reviewed far more security-cam footage of self-defense shootings than any mentally healthy person would reasonably do, and a stupidly large number of documented accounts of shootings that were not caught on camera. I have reached an unpopular opinion as a result.

Recently a friend who has over forty years of continuous experience in the firearms industry, competition shooting and concealed carry and I discussed this. In the real world practically any repeating firearm will probably do the job, because almost without exception when the gunfire starts the bad guys flee if they can. Caliber? Doesn’t matter. Hit location? Might influence how far they run before collapsing or escaping. Multiple attackers? More people running. Body armor? They run away a bit more awkwardly.

I will soon be picking up a little .22 Short pistol as a range toy. It is has inadequate power, penetration, ease of shooting etc. It’s hard to imagine a less functional pistol for self defense, and odds are that in the real world it would do the job just fine.

In the real world a tiny mouse gun will probably do the job, but do you really want to bet your life on it?

What is ‘The Job?’

Simply put it’s to make the bad person stop doing whatever they were doing that made it necessary to shoot them. It’s not to kill them, it’s not to render them incapable of continuing their actions. It’s to make them stop doing The Bad Thing. They can surrender, they can run, they car drop dead in their tracks. Doesn’t matter as long as they stop. If a ‘Soft Stop’ can do the job then that’s enough. Bad people attacking a normal person virtually never press the attack in the face of a firearm. Any firearm. So it is reasonable to maintain that any firearm will do The Job. But ‘reasonable’ and ‘prudent’ are not the same thing.

Let’s get real here. If you play the odds you don’t need a gun at all. Odds are you will never need one. As an everyday person if you need to deploy a firearm for self defense the odds are already out the window. Sure, a mouse-gun firing teeny bullets will probably do the job but you’ve already beaten the odds once. Is it really a good idea to assume you won’t beat them again and find yourself facing a determined attacker? I don’t think it is.

FBI Standards

The FBI standard for performance for duty ammunition evolved from practical experience in the face of their specific needs and have been broadly adopted by the gun community at large. Law Enforcement personnel have a very different situation in their shootings. An individual may have a duty to retreat, and even if there is not a legal duty it is often prudent. LEOs usually have a duty to not retreat. A person attacking an individual is not looking for a gunfight and is usually unwilling to engage in one. LEOs often encounter people that are willing to.

Most individual self-defense shootings are full-frontal at an arm’s length. LEOs might have to engage at extended ranges against a maneuvering opponent. Their bullet is much more likely to strike the target in a sub-optimal location or from a bad angle and/or have to pass through obstructions.

For an individual your ammunition does not necessarily need to perform to this standard, but I feel it is prudent to use ammunition that does. Why? Because the odds are already out the window and excrement occurs.

With reliable sub-compact 9mms starting as low as $200 it’s never been more affordable to purchase a modern, effective self-defense pistol.

My Unsolicited Advice

Carry the largest, most powerful firearm that meets your individual needs for comfort, concealment etc. Use ammunition that meets FBI standards for duty ammunition from the size of gun you carry. In practical terms with careful ammunition selection a .380 ACP will do, and a 9x19mm will do better. Other service calibers work with modern defensive ammunition. Odds are you will never need to perform a Hard Stop (where an attack is stopped because they are physically incapable of continuing,) but it’s good to be confident you’ve got a decent chance if need arises.

Shooting Well Enough

For any handgun of any caliber to reliably produce a Hard Stop you need to hit the stuff needs needs to break to make them stop. Generally this means repeated hits center-mass.

As a minimum realistic standard if you can put all of your hits in the “A-zone’ of a USPSA standard target at seven yards reasonably quickly you are probably good enough for most likely scenarios. I consistently hear that group sizes increase by 75% under stress, so at seven yards you’ll keep them all on-target. Since the majority of individual shootings happen closer than that you are most likely good to go.

But more skill is never not better and training is the single best thing you can do to increase your odds. Also in an individual self-defense shooting you are liable for every single bullet you fire. Of course you don’t want to hit bystanders; that could result in tragedy and would be a hell of a thing to have to live with. But also from a cold-hearted perspective every bullet that hits something other than your target is potentially a lawsuit that you’ll probably lose.

Get to that minimum standard and if you are at all able exceed it by the greatest margin you reasonably can. There are a lot of ways to train that don’t have a big financial impact and I personally feel that training above the minimum standard is a matter of responsibility and exercising due diligence.

Do the training you can manage, even if it’s just shooting targets. The old saw is that being able to hit on the range doesn’t guarantee you will do so in real life. But not being able to hit on the range guarantees you won’t in real life.

Don’t just train to put rounds on paper either. Train on the full manual of arms for your weapon; drawing and engaging from the holster, in different positions, reloading and clearing jams etc. It all matters and any of it could be the thing that saves or loses a life.

Even the most humble pistol can can work if you do your part. This was Lia’s first time shooting the Yeet Cannon.

Take a Class

A good defensive shooting class will help you understand a lot that will help keep you and others alive as well as acquaint you with the legalities of employing deadly force. If you elect to employ a firearm for self defense you must do your due diligence. If you are going to carry in public you have a responsibility to educate yourself and know not just how to shoot but when, and at least as importantly when not to. A gun is not a solution; it’s a last-ditch response when everything else has gone wrong. A good class can also give you some tools to keep things from getting to that point.


…don’t let your ego drive your actions. Gun goes on, ego goes off. One of your responsibilities when armed is the responsibility to not make things worse. Situational awareness, de-escalation and simply not being a jerk can all help with that. It is far less important to be right than it is to be safe, and don’t let your ego tell you otherwise.

I’m human. I get angry and frustrated. That’s when I have to be extra careful and back things down. In a lot of irksome situations I can de-escalate my own reactions by imagining how the people around me feel and having a little compassion.

As an armed citizen my best possible outcome is to never need to deploy my firearm. If I do need to use it the only thing that can possibly justify doing so and risking the loss of life, the certainty of profound legal, financial and emotional consequences that will follow is to save myself or another innocent party from death or grave physical injury. Even then it’s the response when all other options have failed or are unavailable.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 2 December 2023

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